Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 3
 
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
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Senior Housing Vaults Major Hurdle

Matthew Hersh

A petition with more than 1,900 signatures opposing further development along a northeastern tract of the Princeton Ridge was presented to Princeton Township Committee Monday night as the governing body examined, and eventually introduced, an ordinance that would open the area to a wider age demographic than had been previously allowed.

And while petitioners put forward several arguments, citing the area’s environmental sensitivity, questioning the nature of age-designated housing, as well as expressing concerns over potential flooding due to increased development, Committee members maintained that the ordinance, which would amend code along a Bunn Drive parcel to allow for residents age 55 and up, down from the previous age-62 minimum, was an improvement to base zoning there for office and research purposes, and would help to satisfy a long-standing Township goal of building market-rate senior housing.

For housing advocates, the ordinance introduction is a tentative victory. For both the advocates and those in opposition, the vote represents just one hurdle in a three-stage zoning process. The ordinance will next be up for review this Thursday by the Regional Planning Board of Princeton, which will then vote to refer the zoning amendment back to the Township Committee for a final vote, slated for January 28.

“Market-rate senior housing is good public policy,” Township Mayor Phyllis Marchand said at the conclusion of the three-hour hearing that filled Township Hall Monday night.

The ordinance introduced by Committee is effectively an update to an existing senior housing overlay zone that was first crafted in 2001. In August 2007, responding to concerns that an age-62 minimum would be too restrictive on prospective developers, the Township heard an appeal and were presented with a development concept from architect J. Robert Hillier, the contract purchaser of the Bunn Drive site. Mr. Hillier, a Town Topics shareholder, primarily recommended a reduction in age minimum to allow for 55-year-olds, and suggested building on only a portion of the 17-acre site.

The Hillier plan represented a departure from a previously approved development plan to build 140 residential units on the tract, which is owned by the Short Hills-based Chatham Capital Investors, LLC. That plan, however, was scrapped in late 2006 when the prospective developer, K. Hovnanian, backed out, citing a decline in the age 62-and-over market, as well as a reported disagreement in purchase price from the property owners. Mr. Hillier, who had outlined a total of 158 units on site, will pay roughly $10 million for the property, contingent on final zoning approval.

No formal development plan has been submitted, and while it is widely expected that Mr. Hillier would develop the site if the new zoning were approved, Township Hall has made a point of stating that this new zoning was crafted for any prospective developer, and not just Mr. Hillier.

While the signature component of the proposed ordinance is a minimum age reduction to 55, Committee implemented several new revisions to the 2001 zoning, including a mandated Princeton preference for all the market-rate units, including 24 units that would be marketed to prospective middle-income residents. The Princeton preference would not apply to the 12 proposed affordable units for low- and moderate-income residents, in line with state law. Specifically, the ordinance outlines eight moderate-income and four low-income units.

Prospective residents who would get right of first refusal would include: current Princeton Borough and Township residents; parents and children of current residents; those who were residents of either Princeton Borough or Princeton Township within the past five years prior to a development’s approval date; current, active emergency volunteers of the Princeton Fire Department, and the First Aid & Rescue Squad; and current employees of the Township, Borough, Princeton Public Library, Princeton Regional Board of Education, or employees of any of the joint municipal agencies.

Any developer will also be required to donate at least three acres of land to the Township for “future municipal purposes,” including the rehabilitation of an existing, 1970s-era detention basin across Bunn Drive on land also owned by Chatham Capital. The renovation of the basin would be to accommodate adjacent affordable units. A developer would also be required to provide a cash contribution to the Princeton Township Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

The last marquee component of the ordinance is a provision that requires that a minimum of eight-and-a-half acres on the site be left completely undisturbed, with a minimum of 12 acres providing common open space.

While Committee members insisted that existing zoning would allow for a 90,000-square-foot, 450-parking-space office facility, residents in opposition were unmoved, saying that any development should be avoided. Residents also took exception to the perceived role Mr. Hillier had in working with the municipal planning department in assembling the proposed ordinance.

“This is not a senior housing issue, but an issue of leadership and honesty as it relates to development,” said Township resident Chuck DiSanto, who presented Committee with the petition. Mr. DiSanto, representing the resident-based Campaign to Save Princeton Ridge, went on to say that the housing policy was “largely developer driven.”

Liz Cutler, a faculty member at Princeton Day School, as well as a member of the Sustainable Princeton steering committee, urged Township to make its environmental provision more stringent. The proposed ordinance requires a developer to meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards, but does not mandate LEED’s “silver” classification, a level of building Mr. Hillier said he would meet. “If he can do it, why not do it?” Ms. Cutler asked.

Township resident Tom White worried that the units would not be as affordable as residents might expect: “This is not senior housing,” he said, calling the proposal “uber-upscale housing with amenities.” Borough resident Henry Powsner said there “is not good justification for building on the Ridge,” and urged Committee to find property owners elsewhere to develop their properties for housing, specifically referencing the Princeton Shopping Center.

And while the opposition outweighed those in favor, the housing advocates who extended their 15-year battle for senior housing into Township Hall Monday night urged Committee to pass the ordinance at the end of the month. “Diversity in housing makes for a more stable community,” said Township resident Sandra Persichetti. Ms. Persichetti, who prefaced her comments that she was speaking as a private resident, is the director of Princeton Community Housing, the largest provider of low- and moderate-income rental housing in Princeton.

Susan Loew, also a Township resident, refuted the notion that the Township was being favorable to the developer in crafting a new ordinance: “We are not reinventing the wheel by changing the age to 55.”

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The Regional Planning Board of Princeton will review the changes to the Township’s RSC-2 Zoning District Thursday, January 17, at 7:30, at Township Hall. Princeton Township Committee is slated to hold a public session before casting its final vote on the ordinance at its January 28 meeting, at 7 p.m., at Township Hall.

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